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Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s term in office is just about finished. He has had his summits, the budget has been passed, and he has completed one year in office. Gaffes notwithstanding, Mori can now step down with a clear conscience and some tangible accomplishments. Attention now focuses on picking his successor. It’s a grim sign that some are asking if it matters who heads the world’s second leading economy.

Ten prime ministers in 10 years. For many observers, the revolving door at the prime minister’s residence is one of the main reasons for the economic stagnation that turned the 1990s into Japan’s “lost decade.” For more seasoned — and cynical — observers, the parade of politicians through the Kantei is an irrelevance. In Japan’s “karaoke democracy,” the actual officeholder is unimportant: The system runs on auto pilot and the man in charge must merely read from a prepared song book. As long as he gets the words right and sticks to the melody, everyone is satisfied. According to this school, Japan’s ability to motor along throughout the last decade without encountering a real crisis is proof of just how irrelevant the prime minister really is.

Others claim that Japanese society impedes the emergence of real leaders. For example, Glen Fukushima argued in these pages (“Understanding leadership in Japan,” March 28) that “Japanese — used to conformism, groupism and surface harmony, at least in the postwar period — so dislike the display of individual leadership traits that Japanese who exhibit them are soon forced to suppress them.”

Instead, Fukushima continued, there has developed “a Japanese logic of leadership,” that “has tended to de-emphasize the active, explicit, clear, direct dimensions centered on strong individuals that Westerners, and many Asians, consider to be essential elements of leadership . . .”

Dick Samuels scoffs at the idea. “Whenever I hear that Japan doesn’t have a great leaders I think, ‘What are you talking about?’ ” said Samuels, Ford Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “There aren’t better examples of leadership anywhere in the world than the ‘genro’ in Japan. They were no less than the founding fathers of the United States. “

He should know. Samuels has spent the last couple of years grappling with leadership — what it consists of and what it means. He is midway through a book that he is writing that compares leadership in Italy and Japan.

He agrees with Fukushima on one point: Culture does create context. There is a special view of leadership in Japan, “but it is not enough to make me think that there is more than a quantitative difference from the United States. ‘Leadership’ is not something different in Japan.”

The problem may well be that we don’t have a precise idea of just what a leader really is. To paraphrase Joseph Nye, leadership is a lot like oxygen: We don’t tend to notice it until it’s gone. The easy definition is that a leader is a great man or woman, but that merely begs the question: What is it that makes someone great?

“Leadership is the ability to stretch constraints,” argues Samuels. All of us, and especially politicians, operate within well-defined parameters: organizations, beliefs and precedents. The trick is being able to see new possibilities within those pre-existing restraints.

“Not all you need to know about historical change comes from wage levels, class structure, or other important ‘great forces.’ There are multiple equilibria in history. There isn’t just a right way or wrong way. Great leaders can make a huge difference — have made a great difference.”

Take Shigeru Yoshida, the seminal figure in Japan’s postwar history and Samuels’ personal favorite among modern Japanese leaders. Yoshida was squeezed by seemingly incompatible forces. The left was pushing for armed neutrality. The right favored armed independence. The United States wanted a militarily capable Japan, but wanted Tokyo to be dependent upon the U.S. “Out of this, he chooses his own creation — unarmed dependence,” Samuels marveled. “It’s brilliant. He recombined the various policy options in a way that satisfied no one, but created a system that has been institutionalized for nearly half a century.”

Yoshida was a “bricoleur.” The term comes from anthropology. Claude Levi-Strauss used it to refer to a tinkerer, someone who can see possibilities, who can take the materials of ordinary life and put them to new uses. The creative politician takes the constraints that he or she is given and puts them together in new ways. To cite but one prominent example, the Meiji oligarchs used the emperor to legitimate their new order over a century ago.

“Yoshida’s genius was his ability to discover a democratic past in the Meiji era,” explained Samuels. “He showed the world that Japan had democratic genes.”

The bricoleur recasts history, refashioning old symbols and images in ways that legitimate a new rule. That is an especially difficult task in 21st-century Japan. “You don’t see that in Japan today,” says Samuels. “Nobody is using the past effectively to legitimate their vision of the future.”

Samuels credits opposition politician Ichiro Ozawa and Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara with trying to recast the political debate in Japan, but concedes that no one has found the right formula yet. Ozawa’s failure is perhaps the most spectacular in recent years, but it is premature to say that he no longer has a role to play in Japanese politics. “Rejection is not a measure of failure,” said Samuels. “It may even be a prerequisite to success.”

Japan’s next real leader will be looking back to fashion a new order. The important question, says Samuels, “is which past will they use for which future.”

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